The goal-kicking and game management of Elton Jantjies may be the difference in a clash between two desperate South African teams at Ellis Park, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Sharks will be desperate to prove a point after taking a 52-10 hammering to the Crusaders in Durban. The Lions will want to consolidate their log position before a bye, their first of the competition, next week.
Due to a number of factors, this derby promises to be particularly brutal and emotional. The result may be a campaign-defining one for both teams.
All the pressure is on the Sharks. They're without four leadership figures in Bismarck du Plessis, Frans Steyn, Jean Deysel and Pat Lambie. They're without their lineout kingpin Pieter-Steph du Toit. The team that travels to Johannesburg will boast a number of Currie Cup and Vodacom Cup players. Those second- and third-stringers will be tasked with digging the franchise out of a significant hole.
While the Lions will be favourites, they will face their own set of challenges. After claiming an historic three from four return on their Australasian tour, they rode a wave of emotion into their next clash against the Vodacom Bulls. But after eight weeks of non-stop rugby, do they have enough in the tank for one more big performance? Or will the wave come crashing down?
These are the questions that Johan Ackermann and company should be asking themselves. The Lions would do well to stick to the game plan that's brought them success in 2015. But they would also do well to remember this game will be played at Ellis Park, and that the Sharks are desperate for victory. They should also look at that Sharks lineup and realise the Durban side is without several senior players. The Lions have to exploit the Sharks' lack of experience.
Elton Jantjies will be key in this respect. The Lions flyhalf has kicked well for goal this season, and has delivered some stirring performances in general play. While he has enhanced their attack, he has also produced some encouraging tactical-kicking performances. It's because of his versatility that the Lions have played with such balance.
I wouldn't be surprised if Warren Whiteley instructs Jantjies to test the Sharks with some high kicks during the initial stages of Saturday's contest. I wouldn't be surprised if Whiteley points to the posts when the Lions win penalties in the first half. If the Lions convert early opportunities into points and create scoreboard pressure, they will be in a great position to win the clash.
The Sharks, on the other hand, will not want to chase the game. Director of rugby Gary Gold said recently that the Durban side is looking to implement a simple game plan, and it's clear a win is their sole objective.
However, if the Lions lead by a substantial margin at half-time, the Sharks may need to revise that strategy in an attempt to reduce the deficit. And a more expansive approach may backfire against a team like the Lions, who love a loose encounter and are particularly potent on the counter-attack.
The last thing the Lions will want in their ninth consecutive game is an 80-minute war in the trenches. If the Sharks are still in the hunt at half-time, and the battle continues to be fought at close quarters, then the Lions may struggle to close the game out. Their fitness has been excellent to date, but after nine weeks of non-stop rugby, fatigue may catch up with them in the dying stages of this derby.
It's hard to predict how this Sharks side will fare. They're missing a host of experienced players, and Gold has opted to rest several more for this clash. Bok flanker Willem Alberts will come off the bench in the second half, but by then the game may be decided.
The Lions are playing at home, and have the momentum having won four of their last five games. They've played with flair and intent this season, but they've also played with intelligence. If they play a smart game against a depleted Sharks side this Saturday, then they should win comfortably.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Lions 2, Sharks 10, Draw 1
In Johannesburg: Lions 2, Sharks 3, Draw 1
STATS AND FACTS
– The Lions have beaten the Sharks just once in their last 11 attempts.
– Their average losing margin across those nine defeats was 15 points.
– The Sharks have won just two of their last six away games.
– The Sharks are the only side yet to score a try in a possession that has lasted more than seven phases.
– The Sharks have conceded five tries when the opposition has retained possession for seven or more phases. Only the Reds (six) fare worse in this department.
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Lions||Elton Jantjies (63)||Ruan Combrinck, Warwick Tecklenburg (2)||Andries Coetzee (310)||Warren Whiteley (117)|
|Sharks||Pat Lambie (93)||Marcell Coetzee (4)||SP Marais (660)||Marcell Coetzee (75)|
Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Mark Richards, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
Subs: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 Robert Kruger, 20 Derick Minnie, 21 Lohan Jacobs, 22 Marnitz Boshoff, 23 Howard Mnisi.
Sharks – 15 Odwa Ndungane, 14 S'bura Sithole, 13 Waylon Murray, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Fred Zeilinga, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Renaldo Bothma, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Marco Wentzel (c), 4 Mouritz Botha, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Dale Chadwick.
Subs: 16 Monde Hadebe, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Matt Stevens, 19 Etienne Oosthuizen, 20 Willem Alberts, 21 Conrad Hoffmann, 22 Lionel Cronjé, 23 TBA.
Photo: Barry Aldworth/BackpagePix